Holbein, The Prestige and Venice
Over the years I have taken great pride in my magic stage sets for my various shows and wanted to share a few insights for those who are curious about designing sets for meaningful magical performances.
Overall, my set design choices have been heavily influenced by particular paintings, films, and styles. The key painting has been The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. The picture is simple and complex at the same time. It uses beautiful colours that are typical of the Renaissance period. It has symbolic references to a large set of perennial concerns of humankind. It is a large painting and it evokes mystery, wonder, other worldliness, science, travel, life, death, religion, war, politics, and power, among many other enduring concepts.
The greens and the reds have featured heavily in my use of background images (and are consistent with colours in my family’s coat of arms), while the table littered with objects has become a mainstay feature of my shows. I have learned that a table full of props (artefacts) provides curiosity as my audiences sit in wonder throughout my shows thinking about what might happen with the different objects on the table.
The most influential film has been The Prestige, both in terms of the structure of routines (i.e. the pledge, the turn and the prestige), as well as the look and feel of the Victorian stage. Indeed, I grew up with Hoffmann’s Modern Magic and have always loved the illustrations of the boxes, vases, and props in that book. Between that book, the film and Holbein’s painting, I have sought to create my own ambience on stage, which evokes mystery, intrigue and maybe even a touch of fear.
My final influences come from Italy. I taught for seven years in Venice, where as a Visiting Professor, I was given my own flat near the Grand Canal, rode the vaporetto to the Lido and lectured in the magna aula of the San Niccoló Monastery.
Our graduation ceremonies in Venice always took place in the Palazzo Ducale adjacent to St. Mark’s Square, and I used to love sitting on the dais with the other professors in our robes surrounded by the Tintorettos on the walls and ceiling. Life in Venice teaches one about real magic and the power of history, while the architecture, food, coffee, and labyrinthine streets and canals provide a feast of influences for any serious mystery entertainer.
My latest work is grounded in philosophy and imagines a ‘philosopher’s box’ that would be used to instruct pupils to think about life’s deeper questions. The show draws on political philosopher John Rawls and is called ‘Lifting the Veil of Ignorance’, which is being staged at Wivenhoe House Hotel on 17 October 2013 and the Milton Theatre at the University of Huddersfield on 26 October 2013.